Bloomington, Ind. – Rodger Saffold's introduction to IU Athletic Director Rick Greenspan wasn't a conventional one.
It didn't come on a recruiting visit or in the football locker room, but rather on the IU practice fields last fall. Then IU Coach Terry Hoeppner knew a little something about Saffold's athleticism, and wanted to put it on display for his boss.
So Hoeppner had the 18-year-old Bedford, Ohio, freshman join him along with wide receiver James Bailey. On command, the then-6-5, 265-pounder laid on the ground a did a kick up to his feet. Then Bailey – whom Saffold says is easily the team's the most athletic player – did back flips with all of his pads on.
"It was the first time my teammates had seen me do it, so I'd be on the ground I'd do my flips off the ground and (Bailey) would do his back flip," Saffold said. "That was one of the memories I'll always have of Coach Hep."
Saffold's display provided some quality entertainment to break up the monotony of last year's fall camp, but that out-of-the-ordinary athleticism also provided a glimpse of the skill that would propel him from obscure rookie to starting left tackle by the time the Big Ten slate opened.
"The kid has the most unbelievable balance I've ever seen," said IU Offensive Line Coach Bobby Johnson. "I've been around some really good athletes, some really good football players, and I've not seen a kid like him."
That's why Saffold jettisoned up the IU depth chart a year ago and into the starting lineup at arguably the most important position on the offensive line. He started the first six games of the Big Ten season, helping IU go 3-3 in those contests while averaging 138.5 yards/game on the ground.
While he didn't admit it publicly a year ago, Saffold confesses now that he had hoped to be able to play as a true freshman all along.
"When we were winning games (early on) it was fun, but when we lost our first game, I didn't want to lose a game when I wasn't on the field because I didn't feel I did anything to contribute," Saffold said. "I always wanted to play – that was one of my goals. I didn't want to redshirt."
Saffold's shot came after a particularly inept offensive outing against Connecticut when IU managed zero rushing yards and zero offensive points in a 14-7 loss tat Memorial Stadium.
"That's when I had a good week of practice, coach (Johnson) gave me an opportunity to play and it was history from there," Saffold said.
All was going well for Saffold until a bout with mononucleosis sidelined him for the final two games of '06. But he is back to full strength, has added 25 pounds to his frame and is prepared to be an anchor up front this fall.
"I feel really prepared," Saffold said. "With a year under your belt, there's no excuse now…we're getting better and better every day."
Saffold is now tipping the scales at 290 pounds compared to the 260-270 pounds that he played at a year ago. While athleticism and mobility was a big reason why he worked his way onto the field so quickly, he knew that he some additional weight would serve him well this fall.
"My finesse came in handy last year, but I have more power now," Saffold said. "I'm trying to bring it all together now."
Johnson says he's seeing that from his second-year player. The Hoosiers have been targeting tall, athletic linemen in recent years who can get out and run, and Saffold might just be the poster child for what they covet.
"If you watch him in pass protection he's a lot stronger, if you watch his feet and balance, he's never, ever, ever on the ground," Johnson said. "As an offensive line coach, that tickles you pink. He's going to be matched up against the other team's best pass rusher, and he's a guy that's always going to have his body between the defender and the quarterback, which always gives you a chance."
Saffold In Line For a Big Season
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